Stewart floats 'Department for the Union' as PM contenders share spending and Brexit plans
Department would draw up plans for multi-billion pound "shared prosperity fund", Stewart says
Rory Stewart launches his party leadership bid. Photo: PA
Conservative Party leadership contender Rory Stewart has said he would set up a new Department for the Union after Brexit to manage billions in regional funding to support economic development.
Stewart, the current international development secretary, set out his plans for the post-Brexit department before setting out his pitch to lead the country alongside other would-be prime ministers on Channel 4’s debate programme last night.
He said the new department would be given responsibility for overseeing the so-called shared prosperity fund, the government’s planned replacement for the UK’s share of the EU structural fund, which is investing £15bn in projects in economically disadvantaged areas of the country in the seven years up to 2020.
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The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently in charge of drawing up plans for the fund, but Stewart said he wanted to hand over the responsibility to a “first secretary of state for the union”, who would act as his deputy.
“I would create a new post, a first secretary of state, which would be a much more empowered, strengthened position, and I would put the European structural funds behind that position – billions of pounds per year – to make sure that people felt in their daily lives what the United Kingdom was doing for them,” Stewart told Scotland on Sunday.
He said the secretary of state should negotiate directly with regions seeking funds. “Glasgow knows much better than anyone in London what kind of development you need in Glasgow,” he said.
“The relationship would then be between the first secretary of state for the union and Glasgow to deliver, for instance, business tourism, if that was the proposal; or superfast broadband in the Borders, or almost any aspect of Scottish culture, infrastructure, or business which could be something that the UK government could support.”
Stewart’s comments came amid a barrage of promises on spending and the UK’s exit from the EU, as leadership candidates set out plans in the run-up to a series of ballots this week to whittle down the number of candidates to two. Six candidates remain after former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey, former leader of the House of Commons Andrea Leadsom and ex-chief whip Mark Harper were eliminated in the first round of the ballot on Thursday, and health secretary Matt Hancock dropped out of the race on Friday.
In yesterday’s debate, foreign secretary Sajid Javid said he wanted to increase funding for education, particularly further education colleges, following recent spending cuts, while former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said he wanted to improve state schools and diversify apprenticeship options for young people.
Environment secretary Michael Gove said environmental protection would be a priority, and foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said literacy and social care. Hunt added: "every Conservative has two desires: cut taxes and spend more on public services."
Stewart also said he would focus on adult social care, which he called "the great unfinished revolution".
Candidates had also set out some of their other spending priorities in advance of the race, including Hunt’s pledge to increase defence spending as a fraction of national income. He has not given a precise figure, but a 1% rise would cost £20bn a year.
Raab and Boris Johnson, who did not appear in last night’s debate, have both said they plan to make big tax cuts – Johnson by raising the 40p tax rate threshold from £50,000 to £80,000, and Raab by cutting income tax and national insurance contributions, a move that is expected to cost more than £30bn.
Gove has said he wants to abolish VAT – which raises £140bn a year – and replace it with a sales tax.
In the debate, candidates said civil servants could expect to continue work on preparing for a no-deal Brexit under their leadership, although most were keen to avoid this scenario.
Raab went as far as to say he would be prepared to suspend parliament to force through a no-deal Brexit if the government has failed to negotiate a new withdrawal agreement by 31 October. Johnson, who did not appear in last night’s debate, has also been emphatic in saying the UK must leave the EU on that date whether or not it has negotiated a deal.
Javid said that although no deal would be the “last thing” he wanted, he did not want to extend the 31 October deadline.
Gove said he would consider an extension to allow more negotiating time but that he would support a no-deal outcome if he could not improve on the existing withdrawal agreement, while Hunt has ruled neither an extension nor his support for no deal.
By contrast, Stewart has been the most vocal critic of pursuing a no-deal scenario, calling it a “complete nonsense” that would damage the UK’s economy in last night’s debate, and has said he would seek to extend the 31 October deadline.
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